The origin of the Surinamese word ‘bakra’ (= white people, Dutch people)

Posted: 23/10/2015 in Article
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Afro-Surinamese lady, wearing a headscarf (in Surinamese: angisa) in the colors of the Surinamese flag (Photo: Usha Marhé)

Afro-Surinamese lady, wearing a headscarf (in Surinamese: angisa) in the colors of the Surinamese flag (Photo: Usha Marhé)

This article was originally written in Dutch and published on my Dutch website. I translated it because I think the findings in this article are important to lots of people in the Caribbean, South America, the USA and Africa. – Usha

by Usha Marhé

-“You shouldn’t use the word bakra anymore to refer to the Dutch!’
-Huh? I looked into the eyes of the Afro-Surinamese acquaintance who said this to me on a certain day somewhere in 2007. When or if you want to forbid a writer to use a certain word, you have to be very sure about the case you are making and arm yourself with outstanding explanation.
-“Oh, why not?”,  I replied dryly.
-“Because it means that we put white people above our kra, as you know that means our soul, our highest Self.”
-“So, what does the ba mean?”
-“I am not sure, probably it is the shortened version of baas (boss). Anyway, you just should not use the word anymore.”

Originally, the word ‘bakra’ was used to describe or address the white/Dutch master/boss during slavery in colonial times in Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America from 1667 till 1975. The meaning of the word was mostly dictated by the socioeconomic relationship between the enslaved Africans and the white/European enslavers and slave owners. Those socioeconomic circumstances changed since the abolition of slavery in the colony on July 1st, 1863. However, the enslaved had to keep working for ten more years for their previous owners, who still needed the cheap labour on their plantations until the Dutch government provided new cheap workforces. On June 5th, 1873, the first ship of many to follow till 1916, named Lalla Rookh, arrived in Suriname, bringing 399 indentured labourers from British-India to replace the enslaved Africans. ‘The Indian indenture system was an ongoing system of indenture, a form of debt bondage, by which 3,5 million Indians were transported to various colonies of European powers to provide labour for the (mainly sugar) plantations. It started from the end of slavery in 1833 and continued until 1920.’ (Wikipedia)

Circumstances have changed and people and language are dynamic: the word bakra has evolved into a common word in Surinamese lingua franca to refer to white people in general. In fact, it has become a referral to ‘white ethnicity’. ‘Bakra basi’ means ‘white boss’ or ‘Dutch boss’. During colonial time, the word was also used in local Surinamese newspapers.

The fragment at the beginning of this article is a simple reproduction of a conversation that I didn’t forget because the explanation seemed to be coming from a feeling of victimization seeking to be healed, instead of being the result of proper knowledge of language. Although I had not thought about the origin of the word before, as a writer, my feeling and knowledge of languages combined with what I know about the history of my birthcountry Suriname made it clear to me that the given explanation could not be right. Nowadays, to me and many other Surinamese the word bakra has become a functional noun, just like other nouns as chair, television, bicycle, tulip. Naturally, after the conversation I wanted to know about the origin of this word, but it would take years before I would have the opportunity to investigate.

First clue: the novel ‘The Book of Negroes’
About two months ago, the first clue almost literally fell into my lap, while reading the impressive historical novel ‘The Book of Negroes’, written by Lawrence Hill. On page 126 [of the Dutch edition] Aminata, the main character of the story, who has been sold as a slave in Charles Town, is instructed by Georgia about the use of the English language and Gullah, the language that was spoken amongst the enslaved Africans in the USA. Georgia is her fellow sufferer who lives and works for a longer period of time on the same plantation and takes care of the young Aminata. On that page 126 I found this sentence: Buckra was the Negroes’ word for white people, but, Georgia warned, I was never to call a man ‘white’.

From the novel 'The Book of Negroes' by Lawrence Hill

From the novel ‘The Book of Negroes’ by Lawrence Hill

Buckra? Ha! To me, my eyes were reading the word bakra in a slightly different spelling and my tongue produced similar sounds while pronouncing both words. It was a big surprise to me to discover that this Surinamese word was also used in (mainly the southern states of) the USA and is still in use, just like in Suriname. I learned a lot more surprising details about the origin and spread of this word.

Origin: ‘mbakara’
According to different sources, buckra or bakra as we know it in Suriname, is derived from the word ‘mbakara’. Wikipedia mentions: Buckra is primarily used by African-Americans in the Southeast United States to describe a white man or a boss. It is generally thought to derive from a word in the Efik and Ibibio languages, “mbakara”, meaning “master.” I found another explanation about mbakara, that added more knowledge, with the same reference to buckra, in the notes of the book The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston written by Maurie D. McInnis.
2. notitie in boek over charleston

Buckra is also a well-known word in Jamaica. An extensive explanation about the original home cities of the enslaved Africans in Jamaica can be found on Wikipedia, and also about the different original African languages they spoke. Buckra is explained as following: “Buckra” was a term introduced by Igbo and Efik slaves in Jamaica to refer to white slave masters.

Book title: Buckra land
The word was so well-known during the English colonization of Jamaica, that a book about Jamaica was published in 1897, with the title Buckra land, written by Allan Eric, member of the Institute of Jamaica.

buckra land-titelblad2

On page 18 I found the following fragment, where the author mentions the word buckra and explains that it meant ‘white man’ in Jamaica.

Buckra land - pg 18

The two meanings of ‘mbakara’
The two meanings of mbakara are explained on Wikipedia and in the book Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba written by Ivor L. Miller. My quest for the origin of bakra and buckra is about the second meaning of ‘the Efik word Mbàkárá’, as found in Miller’s book.


This explanation also refers to the language of the Efik. In Africa, these ‘Efik people’ who are mentioned in different studies, were, according to the explanations, ‘the middle men between the white traders on the coast and the inland tribes of the Cross River and Calabar district.’ Because of their ‘middle men’ position, apparently their language had an important influence in establishing the contact between the different groups of slave traders, slave sellers and the enslaved, on the African coast and on the slave ships.

Bakra, buckra and mbakara
The work of Mervyn Coleridge Alleyne provided me with the link I searched for between the words bakra, buckra en mbakara. Alleyne, born in Trinidad, is a sociolinguist, creolist and dialectologist who researched the ‘creole languages of the Caribbean’. Sranan (Surinamese) and Saramaccaans (another Surinamese language which is spoken by descendants of enslaved Africans who fled the plantations), the Jamaican Creole and the Guyanese Creole were part of his research, of which the results are published in his book ‘The Construction and Representation of Race and Ethnicity in the Caribbean’. In the subchapter ‘The system of Representation’ he explains the different names and there we see the word bakra again, derived from mbakara. Alleyne also explains the change of the use of the word from a ‘socioeconomic meaning’ into ‘ethnic meaning’.



The results of my quest to find the origin of the Surinamese word bakra, in English regions known as buckra, lead me to the conclusion that this word is not a unique word only known to Surinamese people. On the contrary, it has a rich history that started centuries ago on the coasts of Africa that connects many countries and peoples to each other. The word is derived from the Efik word mbakara. Considering the explanation about the original languages of the enslaved Africans, it has travelled from Africa to all the places in the USA, South America and the Caribbean where enslaved Africans were sold as merchandise and had to work on the plantations and where they kept using the word bakra/buckra as a referral to their ‘white boss’.

Filmmaker Frank Zichem has made a documentary, named ‘Katibo Yeye’ (katibo = slavery), in which he travels from Suriname to Ghana with an Afro-Surinamese man to find his roots, and then back to Suriname, bringing a Ghanaian man with him, who doesn’t believe things he hears about African slave trade and slavery. This Ghanaian man almost bursts into tears when he hears the language of the Coromantee in Suriname, which is his own language. Because of the language he finally believes what has happened. Two fragments of the documentaire can be seen through this link. Except about the origin of these Surinamese Coromantees, almost nothing is known about the countries or regions of origin of the Afro-Surinamese people. Which is another reason why finding the origin of the word bakra/buckra is so interesting: it might be a big clue for Afro-Surinamese people in search for the regions of origin of their African roots.

©article and photo: Usha Marhé, 2015

  1. I am a 72-year-old Jamaican-born U.S. citizen living in California. This morning I woke up and as I was making coffee and feeding our cats, the word “bakra” popped up in my mind and refused to leave. I wondered about the origin of the word, so over my cup of coffee and toast, I googled the word and came upon your great article. Thank you for researching and sharing your findings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Usha Marhé says:

    Thank you very much for your uplifting reaction Derrick! We have a shared Caribbean history. I hope to visit Jamaica at least once in my life. Regards, Usha


  3. fledgist says:

    Excellent article, Usha. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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